Monthly Archives: August 2015

“But You Don’t Look Afghan?”

Oh, that skin-crawling, gut-wrenching, piss-off of a statement myself and my countrymen get from time to time. One time, I got, “But you’re not dark.” Ok moron.

Look, I know the media makes us all look the same. I know that from an outsiders standpoint, Afghans are just brown people with brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin.

And there are many Afghans who fit that phenotype. BUT GUESS WHAT. THERE ARE ALSO A LOT WHO DON’T.

This post was inspired by something really stupid that happened last night:

I saw a really ignorant comment on a friends post. She is an ethnic Pashtun and gets mistaken for white, European, Anglo, whatever the hell you wanna call it. Well, she was wearing traditional clothing in the picture and someone who presumptuously thought she is “white” commented, inquiring if she was “culture-appropriating”.

PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT. NOT ALL “BROWN PEOPLE” ARE ACTUALLY BROWN. Many, and I mean MANNYYYYY of us come out with “white” features. My mother was born with red hair, my youngest aunt with blonde, and my father with green eyes. And these features are NOT limited to Afghanistan; Iranians, Arabs, Desis, pretty much anywhere in our region, there are MANY people who wouldn’t get a second look from TSA.

“White” looking Afghans are not a phenomenon, they just don’t fit the stupid Western stereotypical phenotype of “those people over there” and so, are gazed at in awe.

Well, get the hell over it. For Gods sake, WE PUT CAUCASIAN ON OUR DOCUMENTS. They exist. And here are some pictures to prove it.

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Then there’s those on the other side of the argument. Those who whitewash our histories and constantly put up pictures on their FB and Instagram pages of ONLY Afghans who have red and blonde hair. I have seen countless “Afghan pride” pages on Instagram with photos of people who look nothing like me. Why you tryna fit in so bad? Why can’t we celebrate the diversity of ALL Afghans, no matter their hair or eye color?

But I guess I understand that desire to “prove our whiteness”. Technically speaking, Afghans are Aryans, Caucasians. This fact is really only known to the people from this region, and it still weirds me out that I put “White” on my records. BUT IT IS WHAT IT IS.

My points, summed up:

  1. People need to understand that the media tries to box Middle Eastern and Central Asian Muslims in little stupid categories and looks. They do this to further a racist, policing agenda thats pushed by colonial, military governments. They do this so it is an Us-versus-Them thing; as in, “See! the enemy looks nothing like you!” But SURPRISE! As these pictures show, the “enemy” can look just like you, and ya daddy.
  2. Race is socially-constructed. In high school I used to love reading about the different “stocks” of people and was so about that Aryan life. I used to always love throwing it out there that Afghans were “white”, because it challenged people’s notions of race. But after I did a DNA test and found my ethnic makeup to be tremendously mixed, I got over that shit. I could care less that we’re Caucasian.
  3. However, this does not mean we must abide by the fixed stereotypical phenotype the Western media has imposed on us. If, for educational reasons, we must dig into and prove our “white” past – so be it. If that means some ignorant moron who thinks we all look like Osama will open their eyes to our diversity, then I’m all for plastering photos of blonde Afghans all over social media.
  4. All of this should not be done to put our brown brothers and sisters down. Afghans have all sorts of skin tones – and they’re all beautiful. I tan my skin on purpose for Gods sake. Many Afghans have dark skin too, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Afghans are some of the most phenotypically-diverse people on earth. As the crossroads of empires, along the Silk Road, and as the heart of Asia, of course we’re all gonna look like a United Colors of Benetton ad. When our non-Afghan friends get this, then we’ve made a small stride towards breaking the stereotype. And that’s always good.

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For My Sisters Back Home

Across the valley of Bamyan, a woman wakes up before the sun. She dawns a blue burka and stares at her reflection in an old, foggy mirror. Her mother, one generation before her, wore skirts and colorful scarves around her neck.

Miles away, in Kabul, a female member of Parliament struggles to get out of bed. Today, while lobbying for her genders rights, she will be undermined, she will be ridiculed, she will be told she is lesser than. Still, she awakens.

In a tiny shack in Wardak, another daughter is born to a family of four girls. Their mother and father reluctantly hold their new baby in their arms. And, briefly, plot to end her life. She is a burden, not a blessing. But they must love her anyways.

In the north, a fighter jet flies over a poppy field. A young girl of 9 looks up to the sky, and imagines herself as a pilot. She is a dreamer, her father knows this. He cries at night because he knows her dreams will stay in her sleep. She will die a week later from stepping on a mine.

The mother of a Talib fighter looks to her son with pride. “They are the resistance” she tells herself, “they will save our nation”. She will bury what remains of his body that night.

My sisters, my mothers, my daughters back home. Those with strong conviction, those with shattered dreams. Those who awaken before the whole household to prepare what little food is available. Those who fight to create a safer country, who struggle to get out of bed. I wish I was with you and I am sorry I’m not. But tonight I will keep you in my prayers.

<> on September 7, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Bamyan

the cold dark air

is broken by the hint of sun

dawn is here

and I see our Buddhas

standing tall, standing serene

with their eyes

softly gazing over Bamyan valley

whose dirt covered our blood

of a thousand years,

of slant-eyed invaders,

of blonde-haired men,

of a foreign tongue we could not understand.

this is the land we have come from

the noises of the bazaar,

the tabla drums in our song,

and our Buddhas, watching,

protecting us.

the only welcomed infidels in a land of covered heads and rosary beads.

the voice of the thirsty mullah

echoes and bounces off our statues,

loudly, the words of the Book

are resonated through the valley,

and calmly, the Buddhas stand.

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Humans of New York Gets It All Wrong

My people are treated like dirt in a country that did not exist three generations ago.

My people live in slums on the land they’ve loved for 6,000 years.

My people are vilified and called rodents, terrorists, leeches, in a place they’d never imagine would be called anything other than “Afghanistan” and “Hindustan”.

Yesterday I logged into Instagram to see heartbreaking pictures and captions on the Humans of New York page. The admin was in Hunza Valley, Pakistan:

 

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“Education changed the lives of my entire family. Before education, we knew only how to work. It was always very quiet in our home. My grandfather was a laborer, but he paid to send my father to a tutor so that he could learn to read. He told my father that, if nothing else, he should begin by learning how to read and write his name. When I was born, my father taught me how to read. I started with local newspapers. I learned that our village was part of a country. Then I moved on to books. And I learned that there was an entire world around this mountain. I learned about human rights. Now I’m studying political science at the local university. I want to be a teacher.”

 

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“We lost their mother to a heart attack recently. And their father is overseas trying to find a job. So I’m currently Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, and Dad. Luckily I have five children and eighteen grandchildren, so I’m very experienced. There’s actually one more child at home—he’s eight years old. And none of them can fall asleep unless they are lying next to me. So I have to put the oldest one to sleep first. Then I get up quietly, and lie down between the other two. The only problem is sometimes they fall asleep on top of me.”

 

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“I admired her from afar for a while, and eventually summed up the courage to tell her my feelings. She told me that she felt the same way. This was before cell phones, so at first our meetings were limited to random interactions on the street. But then we both got mobiles and started talking on the phone. Eventually she told me that she wanted to marry me. I sent my mother to ask her family for permission, but they didn’t think I was a suitable match. They were a higher class of people. They were educated. Her father was a business owner. I tried to plead with them: ‘I’m not paralyzed,’ I told them. ‘I work. Why am I not good enough?’ But I was never given an answer.”

 

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“My father passed away a year before I got married. I wish he could have lived to see me start my own family. After God, he was my god. There was no infrastructure here when I was growing up, so we lived through very hard times and often there was no food. But he’d do whatever he could to make us forget. One night he organized an entire musical. We couldn’t afford instruments so we pretended that we had them. Every one in the family had a role. I was the star.”

 

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“My life is on repeat, every day. This area is surrounded by water, but my village has no access, so every morning I make a two-hour trek to the glacier so we have something to drink. During the day I work to maintain this road. I get $100 a month. In the winter, I make daily trips to cut wood so we can stay warm. I can’t leave this land because it’s all I have. There is no happiness or sadness in my life. Only survival.”

 

This last photo is a direct referral of what this blog post will address:

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“It’s a difficult time to be a socialist. The left has been depleted everywhere else, but in Pakistan it’s been decimated. I belong to an organization called the Awami Worker’s Party, and right now is a crucial moment for us. We are trying to resist slum evictions in Islamabad. There is no affordable housing in the city, so servants and laborers huddle together in informal settlements called kachi abadis, which have no water or electricity. Recently, the Islamabad high court has issued an eviction notice, and the land is being sold out beneath them. They are defending their actions by saying that terrorists hide in the slums. Right now an operation is underway to remove the slum inhabitants by force.”

 

Please refer to this picture throughout the post.

I couldn’t help but notice that most of these people looked Afghan, probably ethnic Pashtuns or displaced refugees. I recognize my countrymen when I see them, these people were not Punjabi and not Muhajirs.

My anxiety built even more as I saw comments of sympathies and prayers. These well-wishers had no clue that these were not Pakistanis. That the tragic stories had more to do with the meddling of Pakistan with the Soviet War than anything. That these were aftermarks of displacement, war, and trauma, all inextricably linked with being an Afghan in a land that once belonged to your forefathers.

There was no such thing as Pakistan when my grandmother was a girl. The world has since changed, and occupation and colonialism continue to go unnoticed. But not to the Afghans. Many Afghans see no difference between the government of Israel and the government of Pakistan: Both found on the concept of religion:

Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.

-Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s ruler, December 1981

Both of these newly-created states forged themselves on violence, forceful deportations, displacement, and so on. Even the name “Pakistan”, is a manifestation of the names of stolen land:

 Although nationalist scholars and politicians tend to romanticize the notion of Pakistan, with some even tracing its origins to the founding of Islam itself,5 the term Pakistan was coined only in 1933 by a Cambridge student, Choudhary Rahmat Ali. “Pakistan is both a Persian and Urdu word,” he wrote. It is composed of letters taken from all our homelands- “Indian” and “Asian.” That is, Punjab, Afghania (North West Frontier Province), Kashmir, Iran, Sindh (including Kutch and Kathiawar), Tukharistan, Afghanistan and Balochistan. It means the land of the Paks — the spiritually pure and clean. It symbolizes the religious beliefs and ethnical stocks of our people; and it stands for all the territorial constituents of our original Fatherland.

Except how can a place be spiritually clean when it is only existing because of the mass murder of it’s minorities?

Afghans and Balochis are killed and displaced daily. Balochi protestors are literally abducted and vanish into thin air, their bodies found months later by families; showing clear signs of torture and abuse pre-mortum. The excuse is “countering terrorism,” but women, children, protestors –  these people are not terrorists. “Cleaning out” Afghan slums is not countering terrorism.

Six days ago, around July 30th, 2015, the Capital Development Authority of Pakistan launched an operation in Pakistan to demolish Afghan slums, beginning with Sector I-11, Afghan Kachi Abadi. As the bulldozers arrived, as the police siren wailed, 20,000 of my countrymen awaited their fate, standing outside of their home with batons in protest.

Just like Palestinians facing Jewish settlers.

The picture above of the young woman from the Awami Worker’s Party describes the mostly Pashtun-supported and backed political group that is working to save Afghans in Islamabad slums. She is not referring to Punjabis or Mohajirs in that caption. She means Afghan refugees. Like the ones in Afghan Kachi Abadi I-11.

Apparently, another artist collective was just as pissed at the Humans of NY project as I was. Pictureosophy, a photo journalist page on Facebook, decided to shed light on what they call “the more deserving humans of Pakistan”. These were my countrymen of I-11. The photojournalist created a photoessay to get his message across. I have reprinted the pictures along with the captions here:

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I watched as the young boy of about 10 pulled out a roughly hewn slingshot from his pocket. His face broke into a smile as he identified his target. The look of delight on his face belied the squalor, the dirty streets and the mud houses he was surrounded with. Why? This place was where he was born, where his parents were born. This was home.

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Not any more, however. Last week, the young boy, along with everyone else in the I-11 Afghan Katchi Abadi were forcefully evicted by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), their homes bulldozed to the ground, down to the last mud hut.

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These days, Pakistan’s digital social media space is inundated with news of Brandon Stanton, the man behind Humans of New York, and his visit to Pakistan.

 

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Stanton’s ‘Humans of Pakistan’ segment has taken forums like Facebook by storm.

 

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But in this frenzy, are we forgetting those humans of Pakistan that are currently more deserving of our attention?

 

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No one speaks of these people; they have been forsaken by the media and society in general.

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The ‘Humans of the slums of I-11.’ I dare not call them Humans of Islamabad for fear of offending the aristocratic society of Pakistan.

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The name ‘Humans of I-11’ is clearly a ripoff of Stanton’s project, but this is deliberate. It attempts to redirect some of the attention the Humans of New York has received.

 

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Pakistan is a generous country. In the past, we as a nation have often taken up the cause of those who we feel deserve our help. And we always survive, albeit with some baggage.

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The Afghan war was one of these undertakings, in which we proudly helped the Afghans defeat a superpower. We came out victorious in the end, but the baggage that we carried away with us still lingers.

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The baggage I talk about, of course, is the refugee crises Pakistan has had to face since the 1990’s. The refugee community this photoessay focuses on are the residents of the Afghan Katchi Abadi of I-11

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The CDA has justified this vast scale eviction by claiming that these Katchi Abadi’s harbor terrorists and criminals that are a threat to Pakistan’s security.

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It is true that our country faces a security dilemma, but will the CDA’s line of action pacify the situation? That is the question.

 

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In all probability, this eviction might quite well contribute to the security crisis

 

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Disrupting the lives of the residents of the I-11 slums, who have been living here for the past 25 years, by forcefully evicting them would, by all sociological understanding, create even more criminals.

 

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These people are being pushed to the point of desperation where they could be forced to resort to criminal activity in order to survive.

 

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The already deprived are being deprived even further

 

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As I mentioned earlier, the Katchi Abadi slums are, or should I say were, home to Afghan refugees who migrated into Pakistan, fleeing from Soviet forces in 1989, during the Soviet-Afghan War.

 

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Today, even after three generations, these people exist without an identity; for what more defines one’s core identity than ones nationality?

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The offspring of the refugees are citizens of the world, so to speak, as they do not officially belong to any country.

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Thus, for the past 25 years, these refugees have been living in deplorable conditions, without access to proper housing, hygiene and health facilities and education.

 

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These beautiful human beings are forced to do menial labor in order to survive.

 

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In fact these slum dwellers provide most of the cheap labor in Islamabad, receiving less than minimum wage.

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The elite class, who are so hell bent on trying to get rid of these people, have no problem hiring them to build their houses and water their lawns.

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As I walked around the basti, I noticed stones protruding out of the ground marking the graves of those who had transgressed to the next world.

 

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I realized how deeply anchored these people are to this basti now. The CDA has evicted the living, but what about the dead?

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For us, these might just be mud houses and dirty streets, an eye sore that has to be beheld while driving to and from Islamabad.

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But to the residents, it is home. And no human should have to suffer seeing his home being razed to the ground.

 

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No matter how miserable home may seem, the familiarity one feels when entering it is a constitutional right that should be given to every soul living in Pakistan.

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While giving the authorities the benefit of the doubt, the uncertainty of the fate of these people should haunt the population of Pakistan.

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To most of Pakistan, these are just faceless human beings, but let us not forget that they are humans, nonetheless.

 

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The eviction of the residents of the Katchi Abadi blatantly exposes the discerning indifference of the people of Pakistan.

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For it is our moral responsibility to stand by those less fortunate than ourselves.

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Alas, what is done is done. All we can do now is hope to be more humane towards our fellow man. Bearing in mind that standing by silently, while injustice prevails, makes one accomplice to the aggressors.

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Strange that even in its unplanned, shabby existence, the slums above gave a whif of home to some humans of Pakistan. Who are we kidding? They were just humans of I-11.

Just as Armenians cry over Eastern Turkey being Western Armenia, just as the Amazonian tribes mourn the loss of their homes, just as Palestinians lament the loss of their cities, so too did the Afghans lose a part of themselves during partition.

The partition narrative is greatly told from the perspective of Indians, but what of us, the mountain-people to the north? Did we lose nothing? Did we self-determine? The answer is no. All we gained is the status of “terrorists” and “rodents” in an infant nation.

How long can Muslim countries turn their back on systematic racism in Pakistan? How many more slums will be demolished, leaving thousands without a roof over their head? Why doesn’t the world think that Afghan lives matter? Why do our “Muslim brethren” deny recognizing these issues?

For as long as Afghans are displaced, and as long as they are treated like vermin, there will be no end to extremism. Because by placing these valiant and proud people at the bottom of the pyramid, by robbing them of a nation, by denying them their rights as citizens of Pakistan, by keeping their wages low, healthcare infrastructures in shambles, and demolishing their homes, by silencing them when they cry, by ignoring their pleas for support and recognition,  you create a system where they will not “feel” Pakistani. If the nation was found on Islamic principles, then are Balochis and Afghans kafirs?

 

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For my niece Neda, for when she grows older and begins to understand

Two days ago, racism visited me again. Before it was while I was on vacation, while I was in a classroom, while I was in a club. This time racism is my neighbor. Racism met me on my front lawn.

For years, we’ve lived in this neighborhood. A suburb of Los Angeles, Woodland Hills is home to people of all backgrounds. What I’ve always loved about the San Fernando Valley is its color: you can literally find every ethnicity here. However, there are more Hispanics and Middle Easterners, and being Afghan, I felt my family fit into the multicultural fabric of the SFV.

But what I didn’t know was that racism was my neighbor. We’ve always had issues with the white family next to us. This mainly has to do with their behemoth of an RV that is not only illegally parked by using our driveway, but completely blocks out any sun into our home. One of the reasons my sister purchased this home for my parents was the sunlight that came in. It wasn’t ever really a big deal to me, but I understood why it frustrated my parents. Small arguments over time made it pretty awkward, and so I just knew not to really engage with these neighbors.

But our other neighbors we got along with. There’s an old Jewish woman two houses down; she can’t use a smartphone so I call her Ubers for her. There’s the cute Mexican kid across the street, he cries a little when he and my nephew cant stay out to play late at night. There’s Lisa and her cool-rock star husband, my mom told them they can pick the pomegranates off our tree anytime they want. We wave at each other every day. And of course there’s countless Persians on our block, they know my family well and have been over a couple times.

But the racists on the right? I didn’t know they were racist. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, even though they fit the stereotype: loud country music, American flags up everywhere, originally from Texas, with tattoos and pick-up trucks. Those things didn’t phase me, and even now I don’t want to project a message that anyone who sports those attributes are white hicks.

Two days ago, my father noticed cracks in our cement thanks to their heavy RV using our driveway. So he confronted our white neighbors. I looked through the window to see my mother and father, in a yelling match with Racist Husband and Wife. And so I went outside. And Neda came following me, barefoot, in her cute blue sundress and pigtail hair.

I kept quiet. If they’re talking about parking, I’m gonna let them talk. I’m just here to watch. I checked myself in my head; this was their fight, not mine to pick. But then it turned ugly. The following is what I remember of the dialogue:

Racist Wife: “This neighborhood was beautiful before all the foreigners moved in! All these lawns used to be so nice! Then all these outsider foreigners moved in and now the lawns have gone to shit!”

I was shocked. I couldn’t process it fast enough. I marched towards her.

“Excuse me? What does my parents nationality have to do with anything? What does it have to do with lawns?”

Racist Wife: “Ya I said it! I SAID IT! FOREIGNERS! ALL OF YOU! And you need to respect your elders!”

“Respect flew out the window the second you brought up our background. So what if were foreign? Unless you’re native American you can’t call us foreigners cuz you are too lady”

Racist Wife: “At least we were born here okay! Your parents werent born here!”

“Ya well I was and that’s my lawn too. We’re proud of being foreign. At least we know where we’re from. Unlike you, probably don’t even know which part of Europe your from so you project your ethnic insecurity on people who are proud of their roots. You’re disgusting. You’re a typical racist”.

Racist Wife: “Well, at least I didn’t say the N word!!”

I literally have absolutely no fucking clue why this dumb bitch brought that shit up. Was it her PC way of proving she’s not racist? So the N-word is like the ultimate threshold of what it means to be racist? No fucking clue. That was super weird. I literally had the most confused look on my face.

“What the flying fuck does that have to do with anything?”

That’s when Racist Husband knew shit got too crazy. He held his wife back, told her to get in the car. He kept screaming out, “Freedom of speech!” (typical white rebuttal). As they walked away I said,

“Ya, and my freedom of speech lets me point out that you nasty ass racists killed and raped native Americans for centuries and then pout your privilege out to other people and try to tell us wtf foreign means.”

And then they got in their car, flicked me off a couple times, and drove away.

The whole time, my princess Neda, ran from me to our neighbors, yelling, pleading, “Stop! Stop! No more fighting! Don’t say that, stop it!”

For the rest of the day, she hid under the covers and cried, while I shook and cried myself.

For my niece Neda:

One day when you’re older, you will realize how different we are. You will understand that people like us are not welcome here. You will notice that no matter how assimilated you are, they will still call you foreign. Sometimes they will call you even meaner names. Sometimes your name will not be Neda. It will be “towel-head”, “camel-jocky”, “sand-n*gger”, “terrorist”.

Neda, you were born here, your parents were educated here. But I’m sorry, this isn’t enough. I wish I could protect you from what they will call you. Being half Iranian and half Afghan means you will combat more stereotypes than I did.

You will grow up and go to American schools. You will learn American history and pledge to the flag every morning. You will work in American companies, and celebrate American holidays, you will forget Farsi and Pashto, and maybe you will marry an American man, but this will not be enough, I am sorry. You will pay American taxes and carry an American passport. Neda, this will not be enough.

You will face hostility, you will wonder if it’s because of your background. When people ask you “where you’re from”, you can’t say Los Angeles; Neda, that’s not what they mean. What they mean is, your hair is different, your eyes are darker, your name is foreign. What they mean is, what weird sandy place are your people from? Who are you really? Whose team are you on? Where does your allegiance lie? What do you think of 9/11? What do you think of this country? What do you think of these wars? Will you ever go back? Do you hate us?

My sweet Neda, my heart breaks because I know these encounters will happen. You are so lively and happy, I’m sorry one day your identity will be handed to you. My sweet Neda, you might be confused and hurt, but I want you to know that your identity is what you want it to be. Do not let these titles limit or define you. You’re magical and powerful, you wont be tied down because of these labels. You’re so magnificent, you can be all of these things at once. Don’t let them fool you: it is completely okay to be American and Iranian and Afghan and Muslim and an Angeleno and a girl and a brunette and whatever else they box you in as. You can be all of these things because you are just that special. And even though you were born here, you can be foreign too; a foreigner to hate, a foreigner to bigotry, a foreigner to small-minds. Being foreign is not dirty, my sweet Neda.

Neda, your parents come from two nations with rich histories. Do not let these people tell you otherwise. Your Iran is thousands of years old, with stories and accomplishments that absolutely sh*t on any American history. Your Afghanistan is home to the Graveyard of Empires, with some of the strongest people on earth. Do not let them say otherwise.

And if you are ever scared or confused, and you want to hide under the covers, that’s okay too. And if I am still around then, you can ask me how I dealt with it. I am yours and you are mine, my perfect princess. Even when you are not enough for them, you will be everything and more for me.

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